Writing is an art (if you didn’t know that – get out of here!). Like others of its kind, it comes with basic skills which have to be grasped before you can get down to the real business of creating your masterpiece. This includes a solid understanding of the Rules of Grammar.
“But I like to break the rules,” I hear someone say (probably the guy at the back of the class who spends most of his time lost in his smart phone).
“Well,” I say, “That’s excellent. Some of the most famous authors in history are rule-breakers. However. Be warned. If you don’t really understand the rules in the first place, then breaking them is more likely to create a dog’s breakfast than a work of art.”
When I published my first novel, I leaped, with the consummate enthusiasm of a newbie, into a wild attempt to sell it to a wider audience (see previous post: Marketing and Other Forms of Death).
One of my early blunders was to sign up for a forum which indulged in an authorial version of the “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” approach, much beloved by males in teenage encounters. This involved reading (and I use the term loosely) a range of self-published novels and reviewing them on Amazon. It’s no exaggeration to say that I was traumatised by this process. However, I did learn a number of useful things.
- NEVER agree to review someone’s novel in return for them reviewing yours.
- A limited grasp of high school English is not required to self-publish a novel.
- The potential for well-meaning people to create awful stories execrably told is very high.
- Authors (especially new authors) are liable to be DEEPLY offended by anything less than a five-star review.
Later, I took a more measured approach to the review process and had more success, both in providing and in receiving reviews which were thoughtful and honest. The underlying problem of thousands upon thousands of badly-written self-published novels remains, but that’s a subject for another post.
There is, of course, no way of guaranteeing that you will be able to write a good novel (or short story, or memoir, or whatever). In the same way as there is no guarantee that you will be able to paint a fine picture, or play the violin like a virtuoso. There are, however, some basic guidelines which can help you in your quest to create that elusive best seller, killer short story, or sought-after memoir.
Can you spot a verb at fifty paces? Do nouns announce themselves to you? Can you tell your adjectives from your adverbs? Would you be able to spot the difference between a gerund and a weasel? (Okay, that last one was a trick question). If not, then you’re going to be toiling with that modern-day version of Anna Karenina you have in your head.
Tense? What Tense?
I once met an aspiring author who declared “I’m hopeless with tenses. I rely on the writers’ group to keep me right.” Aye, right (as we Scots would say). Your chances of becoming a decent writer are small to negligible if you can’t handle those tenses. Present, past, past perfect and on and on. You need to know ‘em all. Otherwise, it’s Grammar 101 for you. There is no escape.
Punct; tu? a-tion.
Writing afflictions associated with this include: the Gatling gun approach to positioning commas, addiction to one’s favorite punctuation device (ellipsis, semi-colon, exclamation mark etc.) and the dreaded comma splice (for which I recommend the use of a marlin spike).
Syntax (n.): the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
Along with tense, the ability to handle word order and sentence structure is crucial to the task. Most people who have passed high school English can make a decent stab at this. On the other hand, a novel written in high school English is likely to be a dreary beast. Developing a mature and innovative approach to sentence and paragraph construction is one of the first steps towards becoming an author rather than a dabbler.
Those may, or may not, be all of the basics. In any case, I must stop here and get on with writing my best-seller. In Part 2, we’ll move on to the meat of the matter and look at the gravy that’s going to give your story that special flavor that no other author can achieve.